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How FEI and S+P would see the game: Oregon/MSU in 2013

While we won't have updated FEI and S+P data until later in the season, we can take what we can get now and look at what would have happened had these two teams met last year - say, in a Rose Bowl that wasn't. As consistent as Oregon has been on offense from year to year Michigan State has been that - and more - on defense. Let's see how they would have matched up.

Strike a pose, MM
Strike a pose, MM
Jaime Valdez-USA TODAY Sports

FEI is the Fremeau Efficiency Index, created by Brian Fremeau. Brian Fremeau is an author at Football Outsiders,ESPN and BCFToys. FEI is an advanced statistical measure for college football that tracks drive efficiency instead of per-play success.
S+P is created by Bill Connelly. Bill Connelly is an author at SBNation, RockMNationFootball Study Hall and Football Outsiders. S+P is an advanced statistical measure which combines success rate, explosiveness per play and opponent adjustments.

Finally the long national nightmare is over and football season is back.

Unfortunately, I have almost no statistical analysis from this season to give you. Shockingly two very good teams playing Division 2 schools and trouncing them doesn't really give a whole lot of data. Yes, Oregon's D didn't look amazing against South Dakota. Yes, the offense had one bad 3 and out and another boneheaded fumble. No, that doesn't compare horribly to prior seasons against poor opponents. And no, MSU's data isn't that much better, one way or another. We simply don't know much yet.

But here's the good thing about both of these programs - they're remarkably consistent from year to year. While Oregon lost a number of starters they did not lose an absurd amount on either side of the field, and their coaching stayed mostly the same. Same can be said for MSU. Both of these teams have been top-10 teams in their respective areas of expertise for 3 or more years now. And that means we can do things like look at prior years and do comparisons that will at least have some vague notion of possibly being right - or at least in the right direction.

Before you get into this, I strongly urge everyone to read this excellent piece by Chris Brown of Smart Football. He's one of the best authors on football right now and does a great job of breaking down what MSU does and why they've been so good at defending basically everything. It makes me a bit frightened and excited to see. MSU, unlike Stanford, is not about having some of the best players around; they're about having some of the best process and practice around.

How S+P sees the game:

OVERALL When Oregon has the ball When Michigan State has the ball
Category Oregon

Michigan State

UO Off MSU Def UO Def MSU Off
F/+ Rk 5 (33.3%) 6 (32.1%) 6 (20.0%) 2 (25.3%) 22 (11.2%) 43 (4.8%)
S&P+ 10 (251.4) 8 (251.4) 7 (133.0) 2 (153.2) 25 (118.4) 64 (98.3)
Play Efficiency

4 (135.6) 1 (143.6) 35 (108.9) 79 (96.1)
Rushing S&P+

3 (137.2) 2 (145.1) 50 (105.7) 77 (97.1)
Passing S&P+

7 (136.9) 1 (145.7) 39 (108.2) 70 (96.9)
Std. Downs S&P+

6 (130.1) 1 (149.1) 41 (107.5) 102 (88.2)
Pass. Downs S&P+

5 (148.1) 7 (130.2) 35 (113.8) 31 (116.4)
Drive Efficiency

11 (130.3) 2 (162.8) 23 (127.9) 56 (100.4)
Difference in Net Points

5 (1.22) 22 (-1.07) 2 (-1.87) 19 (0.53)

Yes, that's right. S+P rates these two teams as precisely the same in overall value. Can't get much closer than that. Oregon actually got a bit worse after the Texas game - mostly because the offense wasn't particularly great - and Michigan State stayed about right there after the Stanford game. Much like the Oregon-Stanford games of years past this game has two strong strength vs. strength matchups and two good vs. good matchups.

Similarity scores for MSU

On offense, MSU isn't thrilling. From last year they were comparable to Washington State (51st), Utah (53rd) and Tennessee (76th). Of those, MSU was far worse in standard down offense than anything save Colorado (102nd) but stellar at passing downs (31st) - though not quite as good as WSU was. They were less efficient on running and passing compared to, say, Utah. If you remember this team, this was one that seemed to kill people on 3rd downs over and over again despite having drives stall over and over. The other good thing they do on offense is score points  - 19th in the nation in difference in net points.

Shocking no one, MSU is closest to Stanford (9th), though the difference between the two is a huge 17 points. Only Florida State was better, and no one was in MSU's range. Stanford was much worse at defending the pass compared to MSU, though if MSU could be said to have a weakness, it's in their passing downs defense.

Similarity scores for Oregon

Ohio State (2nd) is the closest by far, and it's not really even close. The next closest is Indiana (16th), but they're a full 11 points lower than Oregon. Most of the rest of the teams MSU faced were very mediocre offensively. Oregon is different than Ohio State in that they were far more successful on passing downs than rushing downs, and far worse on rushing (OSU was #1). OSU was essentially far more reliant on the running game than Oregon has been with Mariota.

Weirdly enough, the closest defenses to Oregon is  Ohio State (42nd); Stanford (9th) and Iowa (8th) are next on the list. Oregon really isn't similar to any of these defenses though. The closest is Ohio State, point wise, but Oregon is significantly better on dealing with basically everything save passing downs, which they are somewhat close. Oregon isn't close at all to Stanford or Iowa's defense; I wouldn't expect anything like that game.

Oregon's offense vs Michigan State's defense

So I thought that this would look a lot like Oregon/Stanford. Well, I went back and looked at the analysis for Oregon/Stanford and it turns out it doesn't, not really. Oregon doesn't have an advantage running the ball. They don't have an advantage passing the ball. And they really don't have an advantage on standard downs. All of these are 15 point differentials or more. Where they can excel and extend drives is on passing downs. This is likely due to Oregon's ability to effectively run or threaten the run on long downs and gain explosive yards on any play. If MSU is like it was last year - and Oregon is like it was last year - expect Oregon to get stuffed early quite often - but also expect a lot of 2nd and 8 conversions. That's not enough to sustain drives, but it might allow for some fairly big plays to develop out of nothing. Mariota's health and ability to threaten the run is going to be key.

Oregon's defense vs Michigan State's offense

As big an advantage MSU has over Oregon on defense - and it is a very large one - Oregon's D in theory has that over MSU on defense as well. Given how close their scores are to each other in S+P this shouldn't be a surprise. This is definitely the worst of the predictions though; how will Oregon play on defense without Aliotti coaching? We just don't know. If Oregon's defense plays similarly to what it has in years past, what we'll see is a very decent defense that gets wrecked sometimes on 3rd and longs. That is the only place that Michigan State has any kind of offensive advantage. If that sounds like the reverse matchup, that's because it is. Oregon has nearly a 20 point advantage in every category but passing downs. This also implies explosive plays and big conversions will make or break the game.

How FEI sees the game:

Since this is early, only the numbers that are boldly italicized are from this year's projections. Everything else is from last year.

OVERALL When Oregon has the ball When Michigan State has the ball
Category Oregon

Michigan State

UO Off MSU Def UO Def MSU Off
F/+ Rk 5 (33.3%) 6 (32.1%) 6 (20.0%) 2 (25.3%) 22 (11.2%) 43 (4.8%)
FEI Rk .279 (2) .189 (9) 4 (.612) 2 (-.733) 16 (-.422) 33 (.267)
Field Position 9 (.549) 5 (.558)

Raw Efficiency 3 (.285) 9 (.187) 4 (.639) 1 (-.706) 13 (-.404) 68 (-.014)
First Down rate

6 (.792) 2 (.536) 27 (.622) 58 (.683)
Available Yards rate

3 (.629) 1 (.285) 25 (.395) 63 (.458)
Explosive Drives

8 (.223) 9 (.072) 8 (.067) 72 (.117)
Methodical Drives

90 (.123) 9 (.098) 34 (.119) 74 (.138)
Value Drives

1 (.609) 1 (.204) 15 (.289) 64 (.372)
Special Team rank 26 (1.379) 29 (1.292)

Field Goal efficiency 96 (-.235) 26 (.363)

Punt Return efficiency 4 (.201) 91 (-.138)

Kickoff return efficiency 5 (.059) 38 (-.066)

punt efficiency 97 (.015) 37 (-.144)

kickoff efficiency 73 (-.124) 36 (-.211)

FEI agrees with S+P largely when it comes to Oregon, but is a bit more optimistic with respect to Michigan State - particularly on offense. This is largely because MSU was able to avoid costly turnovers, score on drives when they should be scoring, and in general do fairly well getting something out of drives against what FEI considered a fairly hard schedule.

Game Factors: the best and worst of the teams

As before,there are more explanations and examples over at Football Outsiders.

Oregon's highs and lows

high on offense: Washington (6th overall, 2.366)

low on offense: California (1199, -.330) (Arizona is next at 578)

Standard deviation (throwing out the Cal game): 174

high on defense: UCLA (18 overall, -1.286)

low on defense: Arizona (855th overall, .456)

Standard deviation (throwing out the Cal game): 239

Oregon is still fairly consistent from game to game. The offense played right in the middle of the road against Texas (rank 300, slightly worse than normal but not insanely so) and the defense played its third best game of the year in Aliotti's sendoff. Nothing that different from the Oregon/Texas analysis from last year.

Michigan State's highs and lows

high on offense: Stanford(47, 1.813)

low on offense: Purdue (1359, -.794)

standard deviation: 432

high on defense: Oklahoma (16, -1.300)

low on defense: South Florida(947, .558)

standard deviation: 310

Michigan State is...well, interesting. The good news for MSU fans is that they played their best football against the best teams - their highest offensive scores were against Ohio State and Stanford, their 3rd and 4th highest defensive scores were against Ohio State and Stanford. That being said, they are really inconsistent. They could easily get a few big plays and drives going and dominate - or their offense could sputter hard, as it did against Minnesota. Their defense could look stellar - and chances are good that this is the case - or it could be kind of just okay like it was against Purdue or Nebraska. My bet is that they will play about as well as they can, given that they have a lot of time to prepare and it is such a huge game for both teams - but when you're this inconsistent from week to week, it's much harder to predict. I will say that a lot of their inconsistency came from early hiccups due to their offense, which were largely ironed out as the season went on. Connor Cook has done a very good job as their QB, and they return almost everyone on offense.

Similarity scores for Michigan State

MSU is similar once again to Utah (35th) and somewhat close to Oregon State (39th) and Stanford (22nd) on offense. The difference between MSU and Utah is  that Utah played significantly harder teams than MSU did, at least on offense. Otherwise they're very close in tendencies and values.

On defense Michigan State is closest to...any guesses? Yep, the Furd. Michigan State also didn't face as much difficulty on offenses as Stanford did - at least as far as FEI is concerned. An interesting factoid is that relatively, MSU gave up way more explosive drives compared to Stanford.

Similarity scores for Oregon

And just like S+P, Oregon is closest to Ohio State (3rd). Both Ohio State and Oregon faced similar difficulties of defenses too, and had very similar tendencies overall; the main difference is that Oregon almost always got something out of their drives.

Defensively FEI thinks Oregon is the best team that MSU would have faced save Stanford itself. Other than Stanford, the next closest is Iowa (28th). And much like the reverse, Oregon was very good at stopping explosive drives.

Oregon's offense vs Michigan State's defense

Michigan State has a small advantage here - 100 points. This tends to be smaller than the advantage S+P has. But FEI also tends to be a bit more predictive when it comes to how well Oregon will do against a good defense. Oregon doesn't have many advantages in tendencies here, either - the one slight advantage is in explosive drives, but that is likely counteracted by Oregon's inability to reliably string together long drives. Oregon is going to have to make some big plays happen in order to get anywhere.

Oregon's defense vs. Michigan State's offense

Similar to S+P, Oregon has a fairly good advantage on defense. Unlike S+P, Oregon's advantage on defense is actually higher than MSU's. And maybe, just maybe, that'll be the case on Saturday. Oregon is especially good at forcing teams into methodical drives and stopping any kind of explosiveness - that has been an Aliotti hallmark. That could really be the game. If Oregon can stop MSU from grinding the ball - something they're not particularly good at (unlike, say, Stanford) it could be a long day for MSU.

Special Teams

Given how closely matched these two teams are, is it any surprise that they're also very close on special teams too? Special teams is both the least consistent from year to year and the most likely to be significantly different for Oregon given a new kicker AND new return men, but...if trends hold (and I'm fairly certain they won't) Oregon should have small advantages in both punt and kickoff returns and horrible disadvantages in kicking field goals. If it comes down to a field goal kick, be afraid.

So what does this all mean?

These two teams are mathematically matched up about as closely as I can remember. Similar to the Rose bowl the strengths of one team match up to the weaknesses of the other in almost perfect lockstep. Those teams were all about offense and a surprisingly good defensive squad against one of the best offenses the college world has ever seen (and this time it wasn't Oregon's). This matchup would be about how Oregon's surprisingly decent defense plays against a good MSU offense, and how Oregon's offense faces the best defense they've ever played.

In a neutral setting this would be a coin flip, pretty much. Oregon should have slight advantages on defense, but fewer returning starters combined with coaching changes makes that somewhat of a moot point. Similarly on the MSU side, they've lost 5 starters on defense. Their program has been exemplary at reloading on defense, but that was the past.

Also, this isn't a neutral setting. This is Autzen. This is where dreams go to die. Or at least it was.

I don't see this as an Oregon landslide victory. I don't see how it could be. The spread is anywhere from 11 to 13 points in favor of an Oregon win. That's probably great for betting, but unlikely to actually occur. Even if Oregon wins it probably won't be by absurd amounts unless Oregon hits super early and puts the game away in the 1st half (similar to Oregon-ASU two years ago). I don't buy that Oregon can't play against good defenses; Ohio State didn't do too badly against MSU, after all.

I personally have a lot of worry about this game. Losing Aliotti is a big deal. Losing De'Anthony Thomas and Bralon Addison is also a big deal. Losing Tyler Johnstone is possibly the biggest deal. Those things are scary.


But Marcus Mariota is almost certainly the best college QB currently playing the game. He is likely the best Oregon QB ever. When healthy he is efficient, precise, fast, and virtually invincible. Braxton Miller carved up the MSU defense on the ground - 158 yards running. His weakness was his passing game. Mariota does not have that weakness.

I think Oregon's going to win. I don't think they cover.